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Steve Reich: 'Electric Counterpoint' 3rd Movement 'Fast' (1987)

Updated on September 21, 2016

Steve Reich: 'Electric Counterpoint' - 3rd Movement 'Fast' (1987)

Revision notes for the Edexcel GCSE Scheme of work

The minimalist piece Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich, an American composer, was written in 1987. The piece has 3 sections: fast, slow, and fast. Reich composed 2 versions for this piece - one for just an electric guitar and tape (with a cassette with the recorded guitar parts), and the other for a group, ensemble, of guitars.

Electric counterpoint was first recorded by guitarist Pat Metheny in 1987. This was released alongside Reich's Different Trains, performed and recorded by the Kronos Quartet, on Nonesuch's 979 176-2. The piece, recorded by Metheny, used extensive overdubbing in the recording studio. Guitarists who wish to play this piece, can either use the pre-recorded track played by Metheny, or make their own track, adding the 13th guitar part in live performance.

Minimalism is a genre of music which originated on the West coast of America in the 1960s with composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass.

Note from the editor:

I actually really enjoy minimalism, and really really enjoyed studying this piece. I think what does it for me is the fact that the cells within the score are so so simple repeated patterns, but put together, have so many 'accidental' chords and beats that work so well! Then Reich adds beautiful harmonies of strummed chords and then goes and changes the key! Ahh, audio pleasure! And yet is just a 12 beat pattern!

Simple, eh? So please enjoy!

Key Features

Minimalism – a type of music from the 1960’s and 70’s which is very repetitive and sparse


- A genre applied to works that take a minimum of musical and repeat it with small variations

- Basic material is often tonal and scalic with regular pulse

- Developed in the U.S, composers sought simplicity after the complexity of Serialism

- Important influences: Indian improvisation, Balinese gamelan, African drumming (non-Western)

Electric counterpoint is:

- A minimalist composition by American composer Steve Reich

- Last in series of 3 pieces for soloists playing along with pre-recorded multi-track tapes of themselves (Flute 1982 and clarinet 1985)

- Consists of 3 movements “fast” “slow” “fast”

- The piece is for electric guitar and tape (the tap part featuring 12 guitars and 2 electric bass guitars

- It was first recorded by guitarist Pat Metheny in 1987

- Uses the techniques of looping and sampling extensively to produce its layered multiple guitar sound


What is it?

MAD T-SHIRT is a tip for remembering musical features by going through 9 key parts of any musical piece.

They are:

Melody, Articulation, Dynamics, Texture, Structure, Harmony (tonality), Instrumentation, Rhythm, Tempo


Electric Counterpoint


- Live guitar brings in guitar 2 and 4 by note addition, guitar 1 is begins the piece and guitar 3 brings itself in

- 4 part cannon with resultant melodies on top

- Electric guitars play one ostinati, bass play ostinati 2, 3, and 2a (bass 2 plays ostinati 2, bass 1 plays it inverted with an additional note)

- Resultant melodies when all guitar parts come in

- All parts crescendo to the last chord of E5


- Fading out happens after the live guitar playing has completed its introduction of the ostinati and chords or when the chords and bass line end


- Live recordings are [f], pre-recorded are [mf]

- Bass line and chord line diminuendo out

- Each bass line is panned to a different speaker


- Starts off with just one track playing, then the live guitarist plays 3 notes of ostinato 1, by bar 6 having the complete ostinato, then the next track is played

- Adding more of the pre-recorded tracks into the piece, thickens the texture


- 3 main parts: electric guitar (live and pre-recorded), chords, and bass line

- Binary form, section A, Section B (and Coda)

- Section A: introduction of all main parts, 4 part guitar cannon, accompanying chords and bass line

- Section B: key changes, time signature changes, bass line changes (and inverts) and all accompaniment drops out

- Coda: live guitar playing resultant melodies, key changes, final chord of E⁵ in remaining parts

Harmony (tonality)

- At first, the tonality is ambiguous, but when the bass comes in, it’s obviously E Minor, but switches between that and C Minor

- Ends in E Minor

- Even though it’s in a Minor key, combined with the high pitches, it sounds happy

- All parts crescendo to the last chord of E5


- Live guitar, pre-recorded electric, bass, and electric ‘playing chords’ guitar


- Time signature is 3/2, with a clear triple metre

- Time signature changes to 12/8 but it’s not noticeable


- Clear tempo of 192 bpm


- For all those words you didn't understand and more! -

Drone - notes that are repeated under the main melody (normally the tonic, third or dominant)

Layering - different length riffs are played at the same time, so they gradually go out of time

Ostinato (ostinati) - a repeated musical pattern

Note Addition - adding a note to a melodic idea

Note Subtraction - removing a note from a melodic idea

Metamorphosis - the tempo, rhythm, note values may change but the main characteristics of the melodic idea still remain

Rhythmic Displacement - when the rhythm has move into a different meter, throwing the listener's comfort, even though it's still the same. E.g. the phase shift might start a beat early, or 2 beats, creating tension or dissonance.

Phasing - when different parts use the same melodic idea at the same time, but only sometimes played homophonically.

Augmentation - the note values uniformly increase

Diminution - using a melodic idea but shortening the values of each note

Static Harmony - slow harmonic rhythm (rate at which chords change)

Non-Functional Harmony - a harmony or chord that is accidently created from a passing note, acciaccatura, etc.

Resultant Melody - the pattern left after you have phase shifted the main melodic idea, normally played on a different instrument at a different octave so it can be heard clearer

Aeolian Mode - example (A-A (A (Tone),B (Semi-tone),C (Tone),D (Tone),E (Semi-tone),F (Tone),G (Tone) A)) minor 3rd, 6th and 7th

Counterpoint - combing two or more melodic ideas in different ways, creating a harmonic relationship (sounding conjunct) while still keeping their linear individuality

Cells - small rhythmic ideas that can be isolated

Panning - changes which speaker the music or melodic line comes out of

Listen - Get the track!

See if you can apply what you've just learnt!

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